Wednesday, November 05, 2014

We need a moonshot

Now that the election is over in the US, we can finally turn our attention to an important question:  where are the big challenges we want to solve, the big opportunities we want to conquer?  For JFK it was reaching the moon.  For LBJ it was eliminating poverty (still working on that one).  What big goals or challenges should we take on next?

The last decade in the political sphere in the US has been all about managing expectations.  We've played small ball.  Even when the Democrats focused on remaking the US healthcare system, they took an incremental approach that hasn't achieved universal coverage.  And yes, I realize that politics is the art of the possible.  But can't it also be about defining big challenges and overcoming them?

Two recent stories illustrate this for me. The first is the recent explosion of the rocket that was sending provisions to the International Space Station.  NASA has "outsourced" the ability to reach Earth orbit, and both this explosion and the issues with Branson's space plane call into question whether or not our government should be leading the research into how to continue to take men and women into space.  But more importantly, what are our goals?  Why do we need a space program at all, if we have no clear goals?  It's not as though we aren't interested.  Movies like Gravity and Interstellar prove that space travel is interesting, and perhaps important for the future of mankind.  Yet we have no clear goals, which leaves us trying to boost rockets into space using 30 year old Soviet rocket technology or witnessing the crash of the Virgin Galatic Spaceship.  The government is at best a cheerleader and at worst a complete bystander in this new space race.  Crashes and explosions are expected when we go into space - it is not without risk.  We must regroup and rebuild, and demand the best technology.  But money and technology follow vision and opportunity.  What is the big goal?  Where is the big opportunity?  Who is making this case?

Another story illustrates the opposite side of the story.  NPR ran a recent story on the Army's research into 3-D printing of food.  While the Army is very high tech, as long as we require human soldiers the Army will run on food, and lots of it.  The story suggested that the Army was interested in manufacturing food specific to an individual and their caloric and nutritional needs, customizing food for soldiers.  This demonstrates that the Army has a big vision - a complete overhaul of the care and feeding of its soldiers, to provide them with the fuel they need to work effectively.  But the sentence I liked the most came from one of the researchers, who said:  It's not being done, so it's something that we will investigate in our project.  "It's not being done" - in other words, there's a huge opportunity here and we feel compelled to explore it, to see what we can create.  If only we had more visionary goals across the government, and the will and the means to fully engage that kind of desire.

JFK launched the race to the moon in response to fear that the Soviets would beat us, but he also challenged the collective capability of the government, American industry and technology to address a huge challenge.  To a lesser extent the Army is trying to use 3-D printing to create really tasty meals that provide the right benefits to soldiers just as they need them.  It's a small example, but one the Defense Department should point to as new emerging opportunities that they are using innovation and passion to explore.

Where's the passion for new solutions?  Why on Earth is the most technologically advanced country in the world using 30+ year old Soviet technology to launch a rocket into Earth orbit?  We need our government to focus on a few big things and do them exceptionally well.  We need our politicians and leaders to work together to solve important problems, rather than bicker over incremental changes.  We need more passion for solutions, and solutions that matter.

What's the next "moonshot" that we as a people should take on?  Whether it's affordable and truly universal healthcare, creating far more jobs and opportunities for everyone, declaring energy independence through a combination of fossil fuels and renewables, or some other big goal, our country more than ever needs a big goal that rallies everyone, rather than dividing everyone.  Identifying a big opportunity and challenging the US to achieve it, using our creative capabilities, innovation, the power of the collective government and the ingenuity of the American people, that's what we need right now.  What's our moonshot, politicians?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:55 AM


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